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Commentary: Legal Writing: The IRAC formula — resistance is futile

You remember IRAC, of course. Sometime in the first year of law school, most of us get acquainted with the Introduction-Rule-Application-Conclusion formula the way kids in kindergarten get to know each other at the start of the school year: “Here you are. You’re going to be great friends. The toys are over there. Now go play.”

As in kindergarten, I was skeptical. The comments I received on every law school writing assignment nagged me to follow IRAC, pay more attention to IRAC, respect IRAC and generally let IRAC rule my life. Naturally I resisted, convinced that once out in the real world I would leave IRAC behind for more creative, sophisticated modes of argument.

It didn’t happen. Instead, as a new associate, I came crawling humbly back after recognizing that when legal analysis gets complicated, readers like it organized in simple, straightforward and familiar ways. IRAC and its cousins CRAC, CREAC and IRREAC (et many al.) leverage cognitive principles to help a reader understand and follow an argument. Is it formulaic? Absolutely. But it works — so those of you inclined to resist, please hear me out.

IRAC works for at least three reasons. The first and simplest is chunking: We absorb information best when it’s in discrete, digestible portions, which cognitive scientists call “chunks.” Chunking explains why we have a hard time remembering a sequence of random letters or numbers, but can readily remember words and sentences, birthdates and telephone numbers.

To the law-trained reader, each unit of IRAC reflects a chunk of information that can be identified no matter where it appears. Rule statements, for example, are usually bristling with citations and can be easily spotted across a conference room. The presence of real-world facts in a legal argument tells us we’re looking at Application. And the Introduction and Conclusion are practically falling over themselves trying to get our attention and our agreement.

We recognize these chunks, and no matter their sequence, we can mentally assemble them into an even bigger chunk that lets us remember the argument the writer is trying to make.

But that brings me to the second reason: Sequence matters. Although our training lets us recognize the components of IRAC no matter where they appear, we like them best in a particular order. When it comes to recognition and retention, location matters as much as content, if not more: We absorb information best when it’s where we expect to find it.

We expect a runner in baseball will visit second base before third. We expect to find plates at the start of a buffet line. We expect that we will be treated to many, many pleasant restaurant dinners and theater dates before we are invited to text nude photographs of ourselves. And if we’ve survived three years of legal education, we expect to see legal rules before we apply them to facts. Always, always, always.

Facts are delightful and diverting, but if I’m asked to analyze them before I understand the rule, it will feel like assembling a futon frame without the benefit of instructions: I may put it all together, or halfway there I may decide a mattress on the floor works just fine. Sequence matters, and IRAC provides a sequence that is deeply familiar to every law school graduate. Use it, and we will gratefully listen and follow you to the end.

Speaking of the end, here’s the final reason: We absorb information best when we have context —specifically when the author answers the reader’s question, “Why am I reading this again?” In their excellent book “Thinking Like a Writer,” professors Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell remind us that this question must be answered in every paragraph, lest the reader tune out and skim down to something more interesting. Readers are constantly filtering out information they think they don’t need to remember. Not only does IRAC offer manageable chunks of information in recognizable containers in a familiar sequence, but that sequence delivers the context we need exactly when we need it.

The Introduction previews the Conclusion, so that it’s already in our mind before we walk through the analysis; it leverages the cognitive reality that we expect important information at the start and end of a discussion (or paragraph, or sentence), and also that we are more likely to accept something we’ve heard before. So the Introduction gently gives us a heads up: “Here you are. You’re going to agree that this is the right decision. I’m going to give you some tools and materials so you can see for yourself. Now go play.”

And play we do. We understand why we’re about to read the legal rules and what we’re supposed to do with them. Once we’ve got the rules handy, the writer gives us the facts again; we fit them into the rules and understand why the rules apply (or don’t). Then, just as the metaphorical futon frame is beginning to take shape, the Conclusion helpfully appears. We understand how we got there, and we accept it. Brilliant!

So my tip this month is exactly what my exasperated legal writing professor told me more than 20 years ago: If IRAC fits, just use it. We learn IRAC as a formula, without much understanding of why it works, but there turn out to be solid cognitive reasons why it helps readers follow legal analysis. IRAC is logical, it is familiar, and it earns the reader’s confidence and trust. Because less cognitive capacity is needed to understand your analysis, more is available to evaluate (and hopefully agree with) it. Why resist?

Summer cliffhanger bonus track: Are there types of legal analysis where IRAC isn’t a great fit, and different modes of organization work better? I say yes. To be continued…

Karin Ciano practices civil rights and employment law, and helps other lawyers with their writing. She welcomes your questions and feedback. Contact her at A version of this column originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, sister publication to The Daily Record.